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What's the Biggest Issue Facing Women in the Workplace?

14 Powerful Women Weigh In on How to Level the Playing Field at Work


It is a fascinating and intense year to be celebrating Women's History Month. As the US comes to terms with its new president and a White House that includes very few female employees (depending on who you ask, women make up either 23 percent or 31 percent of Trump's top aides), the topic of women in the workplace is front and center. From income disparities to awful harassment allegations (and discrimination reports) to the depressing state of parental leave, we have a long way to go before women are treated fairly in the workplace. But it's a worthy fight because, as one advocate put it, "what's good for women is good for America."

So, what are the biggest issues to tackle in this struggle for a better future? We asked 14 powerful women in a variety of industries what they believe needs to change to level the playing field for women in the workplace.

Support From Male Colleagues and Advisors

"I had many bumps in the road when starting my business. One of which was a lack of support from male advisors. They unfortunately thought that a paint and sip business would never achieve more than one location, but wow . . . did I show them. Wine & Design is now a recognized industry leader as well as one of the best franchise businesses for female entrepreneurs and millennials."
Harriet Mills, founder and CEO of Wine & Design

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Maternity Leave and Flexibility in Balancing Work and Family

"Frequently, women are not given nearly enough maternity leave to adequately bond with their newborn babies. Because this is an issue that is important to Mike and myself, we make sure that Jane provides ample maternity leave for employees. Additionally, once new mothers return to work, we try to make the transition as seamless as possible. Lots of our moms bring their babies to work and make great use of our mother's lounge, which is set up with big-screen televisions, comfy recliners, and a fully stocked shelf of diapers and wipes."
Megan McEwan, cofounder of Jane.com

"After just giving birth to a baby boy myself, I am grateful to be in a position to set policies at GoldieBlox that respect the needs of young mothers. Women need ample paid maternity leave (and paid paternity leave for their partners) as well as flexible options to ease back into the workplace. They also need to feel supported by their employer and co-workers that their career trajectory will not have to suffer because they made the decision to have a child."
Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox

"One of the principles of Paradigm for Parity is that employees should be measured on what they produce, not how much time they spend in the office. This is critical for women who are often penalized if they work on a less traditional model (which may be due to family demands or when re-entering the workforce after having children). This is very dear to me since in my investment banking career, I often worked on the computer or on conference calls at home after having dinner with the family."
Jewelle Bickford, partner at Evercore Wealth Management; co-chair of Paradigm for Parity

"The biggest issue facing women in the workplace is the building pressure that you need to choose between your career trajectory and your personal life. . . . Empowerment and equal opportunity comes when employers set up structures and systems that consider these key differences [between men and women], instead of just expecting women to figure out how to do things like a man would. This can range from tangible policies such as maternity leave policies, flexible schedules, and egg freezing benefits, to mentorship and female empowerment programs that connect women and encourage support for their choices and options. When your female employees feel supported, understood, and considered, you're not only going to get better work out of them, but you're going to see more of them in the C-suite."
Lauren Nutt Bello, partner at Ready Set Rocket

"I think before having a baby I would have said psychology: women are too often viewed as aggressive instead of assertive, bossy/b*tchy instead of in charge. And while that hasn't changed, after having a baby I'd say a bigger issue, at least for me, is the whole problem of having it all or leaning in. Work-life balance needs to work better regardless of your genitals. But there can be even more pressure as a mom and career woman to somehow perform amazingly at all tasks."
Michelle Niedziela, neuroscientist, scientific director at HCD Research

A Basic Level of Respect

"Sadly, I think women are still not consistently treated equally as leaders in the business world. The number of female CEOs has increased significantly in my lifetime, and more women are at the highest level of their industries. The dynamic has improved exponentially. The respect issue should be in the past. But I could list many situations when, after having introduced myself, a new potential supplier or business partner will primarily direct conversations to the men in the room, rather than me. It's amazing that there are still professionals out there who respond like that, consciously or not."
Buffy Simoni, president of Paper Mart

"Problems arise in the workplace when women are seen by themselves or others first as women and second as team members instead of being defined by and respected in their roles as engineers, designers, scientists, marketers, and leaders. Any time a woman is told to dress better, pressured by herself or others to be polite instead of direct, or excluded from an event or opportunity offered to her peers, it chips away at her internal confidence and her external credibility. Ultimately, it chips away at the company's likelihood of success. Keeping a person's workplace identity, versus personal identity, in mind can prevent sexism in the workplace and lead a woman and her organization to achieve beyond imagination."
Ooshma Garg, CEO of Gobble

"I think it depends on the workplace. What has become clear recently is that there are some workplaces that don't seem to have evolved much beyond 'He-Man Women-Haters Club,' where drastic action on basic gender issues are required. At most, though, it's more well-intentioned efforts that just never seem to get the job quite done. So fixing these means a greater array of actions, such as making the workplace more people-friendly, putting in place generous parental leave policies (and encouraging women and men to take them), having open and frank conversations about gender biases, and connecting women with sponsors in the company. I could go on, but for most companies today it's not 'one thing.' It's many things."
Sallie Krawcheck, cofounder and CEO of Ellevest

Greater Confidence

"Women find it easy to advocate for someone else, but difficult to advocate for themselves and this becomes a hurdle in the workplace as it pertains to salaries, career growth, and promotions. I would love to see women learn to become their own best advocate and ultimately that is tied to confidence in the workplace. I would encourage all women to be the CEO of their own career and ask for what they deserve. It will take practice and perhaps we'll get turned down a few times, but we all need the confidence to promote ourselves."
Hillary Kerr, cofounder of CMG

Dissecting and Dismantling Unconscious Bias

"We are happy to see many companies embracing unconscious bias training because unconscious — or implicit — bias holds back women in the workplace. Too often employers don't even realize that they are promoting or privileging one group until they look more closely at patterns over time and their own behavior. Implementing unconscious bias training and tracking metrics internally are key to achieving gender parity by 2030."
Ellen Kullman, retired chairman and chief executive officer, DuPont; co-chair of Paradigm for Parity

"I believe the biggest hurdle facing women in the workplace today is that bias is deep and innate, and often we — men and women — don't even recognize it in ourselves. When we asked Fairygodboss users where they see inequality in their workplace, 79 percent said it was in promotion. I always think about a finding from McKinsey's Women in the Workplace research that says, 'Women are promoted based on performance. Men are based on potential.' Which means that women have to work harder, be better (and also probably look better, but that's a whole other issue) — just to keep up with men in terms of workplace advancement. No wonder we have fewer women in our leadership ranks!"
Romy Newman, president and cofounder of Fairygodboss

More Mentorship (and "Sponsorship")

"Currently many companies focus on providing mentors for junior- and mid-level female employees. That's a good start, but to really achieve gender parity corporations need to provide sponsors. Sponsorship is when executives dig down into the corporation to identify women, advocate on their behalf and support them in the pipeline toward corporate leadership."
Sandra Beach Lin, retired president and chief executive officer, Calisolar Inc.; co-chair of Paradigm for Parity

"A recent LinkedIn study on trends in hiring and leadership among women in the workplace found that while we are seeing significant strides in closing the leadership gap, there is still work to do, with women currently holding only 25 percent of all leadership positions globally. It's going to take commitment from all of us to close the gap and create diverse and inclusive workplaces through dedicated and robust initiatives such as mentorship programs to help create leadership paths for women." — Nicole Isaac, LinkedIn head of US public policy

Image Source: Pexels
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